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Where to find the Good Stuff

April 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

Way to go, Chris, Kris, and Tony. For those of you that haven’t read the web-only companion article to this week’s “side of Lance Baker” on the cover of TimeOut Chicago this week on making it as an actor, it’s a nice little piece on the central question on what seems like everyone’s mind as the NEA is flushed and the government gets out out of the philanthropy business – Do we deserve to get paid for this work? And even if so, who should make it a priority to do the paying – the audience, the society, or ourselves? As much as I’d love to lament the alarming reduction in local, state and federal funding for the arts, it’s becoming more and more apparent that it’s time to solve the problem of funding our work on our own. Grants are drying up due to some pretty hostile mismanagement – social sabotage, really – on the state and federal levels of government. When the tide turns back for government funding of social projects (and it will), I think we can all agree that poverty, funding for health care, relief work, and education – all of which are equally being shafted now – should be bigger social priorities than the arts. The arts need to thrive just the same, though – and that means a certain level of inventive thriftiness with our time and money.

It all gets demoralizing, though. I’m teaching some middle schoolers this week and we’re doing – of all things – a play called “30 reasons not to be in a play.” It’s unfortunately not all that ironic a title. Being in the play means rehearsal, and focus from the cast of 30 and tech crew of 8 while in a dark cafeteria watching other kids play outside in gorgeous weather. It means convincing often incredibly inflexible parents to cancel any number of poorly-scheduled piano lessons and dance lessons and baseball and soccer and errands. How can a seventh grader ask their parents to prioritize a school play when the parents don’t value the experience? It means remembering lines and overcoming awkwardness and shame to find… more awkwardness and shame and the very occasional moment of inspiration. It means being in the wrong place and not knowing what you’re doing… and doing that with absolute confidence. It means not texting your friends or checking your facebook account for nearly two hours most afternoons.

Between the parents and the teachers’ scheduling conflicts and the priorities and the dwindling resources of the school, it’s not surprising that children of this age are in a constant state of freakout. The kids are in an ideological warzone – I guess I was too, back at that age – and they haven’t been equipped to navigate it. This is why real change takes generations, not years. These kids are developing in a time of radical and chaotic change, and that will have as many crazy effects on them as the sixties had on the baby boomers.

I thought I was going to have more to say about the Europe / America contrast, but the middle school experience has boiled all of that exploration and soul searching to a central zit-on-the-nose problem: I am an American, and like many Americans, I don’t regularly practice the enjoyment of life. You know, really savoring it. I think I have it, and I pursue that enjoyment, but then life becomes about the pursuit of a bigger happiness, not the happiness we already have available to us: Walking. Eating. Sleeping. Playing. American lives are built to limit, compartmentalize, and focus the time we spend doing these things – in the name of pursuing more time and resources to enjoy these things securely. We teach our children to constantly pursue a bigger better tomorrow and we pack their lives with enriching activities when it’s really the today that needs to be improved and enjoyed. It’s just a backwards logic, and I’ve noticed it in myself rather alarmingly. I always need to walk a bit faster, eat a bit faster, and experience more and more, to the point where I’m not really experiencing anything but panic, anxiety and adrenaline. In theater, I find that human pace again, the easy heartbeat.

Maybe all this aggressive model-building and value-hunting for the future of our theater just feeds the wrong beast, and the secret to creating a new, vital theatrical audience is to follow the lead of a group like the The Heart of Gold. I think I’ve mentioned the HoG here before, and I certainly have over on the New Leaf blog: it’s a Chicago arts commune with weekly performances and quite literally a HIVE of artists and fans that come back weekly for art of all shapes and sizes. Artist and audience mix here – one night you’ll put up your work in the gallery, the next night you’ll see what your friends are doing with that puppet show. Oh, and they throw a lot of potlucks. It’s not a crowd growing like wildfire – it’s more insular and low-profile, with a small audience that grows slowly, person by person. But the people that go become regulars, thus supporting the art over the long term.

What’s the message for this new audience? Kick the Hell back, and enjoy being IN the entertainment. Enjoy the interaction, and make it a vital part of your life – for the benefit of your life. The default response to viewing a show isn’t necessarily crossing your damn arms and sitting in judgement. And there, it’s understood that art doesn’t get finished, it just gets shown again. That means we can’t be satisfied when art feels lazy and doesn’t get to the heart of the matter – but we can enjoy the process getting there. “Theater isn’t a very reliable entertainment” – my eye. That’s the wrong approach – it’s the wrong framework to view how to build a new audience. Audience members who want “reliable” entertainment will go for prescription drugs. Television is only reliable because it is carefully checked and vetted for flavor consistency, you know, like Folgers. Film increasingly attacks all the senses like a carbonated seizure. Film doesn’t work at the pace and volume of life anymore – films told at a life-like pace become low-viewership art house and independent flicks. Storefront theater is locally grown, and sometimes that means you taste a little grit, but the real revelation is in how you feel when you’ve developed a taste for the freshest stuff. You feel connected to your life again.

Theater should be sold like good food: you savor it, you discover it, and then you reflect in appreciation and conversation when the plate is empty. It’s an active experience, and it doesn’t always taste the same. Sometimes a bitter or sour taste brings out the sweetness. It demands your intelligence and an open heart, and I’d say an appreciation if not acquaintance with your local farmer / artisan. The kids get this – they’ve started bringing their parents in, helping put up pieces of the set and putting work into the play. It’s a little Waiting for Guffman, sure, but the parents become instant converts when they can participate that fully in the hobby of their child, and the child starts leading them through what needs to be done. In many ways, theater as we move forward isn’t about the play at all – It’s about the ensemble. We remember specific meals, perhaps, but we keep coming back to experience the work of good cooks.

Best of all, when global food prices shoot through the roof and throw the third world into devastating food shortages, locally-grown food is becoming a worthwhile growth market again. Through locally-grown theater we teach ourselves to interact positively with emotions, subjects, and ideas we don’t understand that are right in our back yard – ideas that are held dear by others in our community. And as Americans moving towards a hazardous political and social future, we need to be much more sensitive and adept at just that.

Wow. Been talking with way too many 12 year olds. You guys know what I’m talking about.

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2 Comments to “Where to find the Good Stuff”


  1. Don’t know why the trackback didn’t work, but Trailing Spouse Blues has a nice follow up to this article.

    Laura’s got some really wonderful insights in general after going back through her posts. Can’t believe I’ve been doing all this ranting on a dearth of women theater bloggers and she’s been right here. She hits discussions head on and adds wonderful analysis from a kind of social health perspective:

    in theatre, as I was growing up and now as an adult, I found my focus. I had to work hard at it, much harder than anything else I did, and it took up more of my time and energy than anything else in my life, and that was valuable to me. Nick’s students are trying to produce a show but doing so in insane competition with all of these kids’ million other activities. They might have to miss a rehearsal for a physics team meet or always be late running in from soccer practice or miss a cue because they’re trying to study for a math test backstage. I never encountered a director who would stand for that… until I worked with a Gen Y director.

    Oh, go read the whole thing.

    *Clapping*

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  2. What a nice compliment. Thanks, Nick! I’m pretty brand new on the scene, but one of the reasons I started blogging is because I was reading all these great blogs and wondering why there weren’t many women myself! So a) thanks for reading, and b) keep up the good work!

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